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Social-ecological system resonance: a theoretical framework for brokering sustainable solutions

Abstract

Sustainability science is a solution-oriented discipline. Yet, there are few theory-rich discussions about how this orientation structures the efforts of sustainability science. We argue that Niklas Luhmann’s social system theory, which explains how societies communicate problems, conceptualize solutions, and identify pathways towards implementation of solutions, is valuable in explaining the general structure of sustainability science. From Luhmann, we focus on two key concepts. First, his notion of resonance offers us a way to account for how sustainability science has attended and responded to environmental risks. As a product of resonance, we reveal solution-oriented research as the strategic coordination of capacities, resources, and information. Second, Luhmann’s interests in self-organizing processes explain how sustainability science can simultaneously advance multiple innovations. The value logic that supports this multiplicity of self-organizing activities as a recognition that human and natural systems are complex coupled and mutually influencing. To give form to this theoretical framework, we offer case evidence of renewable energy policy formation in Texas. Although the state’s wealth is rooted in a fossil-fuel heritage, Texas generates more electricity from wind than any US state. It is politically antagonistic towards climate-change policy, yet the state’s reception of wind energy technology illustrates how social and environmental systems can be strategically aligned to generate solutions that address diverse needs simultaneously. This case demonstrates that isolating climate change—as politicians do as a separate and discrete problem—is incapable of achieving sustainable solutions, and resonance offers researchers a framework for conceptualizing, designing, and communicating meaningfully integrated actions.

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Fig. 1

Source: AWEA US Wind Industry Second Quarter 2016 market report

Fig. 2

Notes

  1. The green credit incentivizes the purchase of renewable energy and is given legal priority on the power lines. If natural gas generated electricity sets market price on the Texas power grid at 15 cents per kW/hr, then renewable-generated kW/hrs would be sold at the same rate.

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Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation: SES Division of Social and Economic Sciences “Collaborative Research: Diffusion of Emerging Energy Technologies within a State Context” Award #0724301. Authors wish to acknowledge Susan Gilbertz, Jamie McEvoy, Luke Ward, Matt Anderson, Rumika Chaudhry, Joel Larson, and the reviewers for comments.

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Correspondence to Damon M. Hall.

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Handled by Joshua Farley, The University of Vermont, USA.

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Hall, D.M., Feldpausch-Parker, A., Peterson, T.R. et al. Social-ecological system resonance: a theoretical framework for brokering sustainable solutions. Sustain Sci 12, 381–392 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0424-6

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Keywords

  • Knowledge to action
  • Transformational sustainability science
  • Climate-change communication
  • Wind energy
  • Renewable portfolio standard
  • Macro-level theory